There's a lot of culinary talent crammed into Cru.
Founding Cru chef Shannon Yates is back serving his "Tasca" menu of casual small plates in the bar, while former downtown chef Harold Balink reigns over the main dining room turning out hearty steaks, fresh seafood and, if you're not careful, a hefty bill to boot.
The Bell Tower Shops restaurant has been a revolving door for talented Southwest Florida chefs. With Yates coming full circle and a heavy hitter like Balink on board, the dust seems to have settled.
We decided to make two visits so that each chef would get a fair shake.
Our first visit was to Balink's section. While Yates' bar was a frenzy of cocktail-sipping socialites, the dining room was almost empty.
Just as the chefs split the cooking, they've also split the wine list, each adding his favorite Malbecs, Pinots and Cabs. The result is an interestingly eclectic selection with a decent array of by-the-glass options.
We started with a bowl of truffle mac and cheese and a grilled romaine salad. The former felt like wintry comfort food, but macaroni and cheese of late has become a dish for all seasons.
Balink's version featured little ears of orecchiette pasta that tasted handmade. The sauce was decadently creamy, scented with an intoxicating touch of truffle oil.
The grilled salad was a summery counterpoint. Quartered heads of romaine were quickly fired adding a touch of char and a pleasant smokiness to this otherwise simple lettuce. Crumbles of bacon and a creamy Parmesan garlic dressing added salt and zip.
Harold's entrees aren't as fussy as those of past Cru chefs. There are no intricately composed plates, just expertly executed proteins surrounded by big flavors. Service is of the same vein: friendlier and a little more casual, but still attentive.
An order of scallops featured five giant day-boat scallops seared to sweet, melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Morel risotto provided an earthy balance to the seafood, but the risotto was a little gummy, like a thick rice porridge. More truffles infused a pool of cream sauce at the base of the dish.
Our waiter suggested the house-special bone-in fillet. It was a huge piece of meat and it was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. A side of mashed potatoes and a few verdant sprigs of asparagus finished the plate.
I was pleased - until I saw the bill: $50.
For one steak. It was a good steak, but for that price I want spectacular.
Desserts taste decidedly homey. A slice of orange crunch cake and another of pineapple upside down cake were what I'd expect from a friend who knew his or her way around a mixing bowl. But at $8 and $10 respectively, I felt entitled to a little more.
Prices are lower in the Tasca bar but might still raise eyebrows - $14 for Spanish chicken and rice?
Yates' playful menu (see Miso Horny Tuna) embraces comfort food as well as loftier fare, all cooked quickly to order. What distinguishes his cooking are choice ingredients that elevate the ordinary.
The $14 Pig Pizza is a long, cracker-crisp flatbread topped with artisanal bacon, imported speck ham and dried chorizo. Each taste of the porker lent a contrasting layer of flavor and texture to the dish. A sprinkling of baby arugula and tiny basil leaves provided a final fanciful flourish.
The Volcano Scallops ($18) mimic Cru's famous spicy crab rolls. Three huge sea scallops are topped with rice noodles and a dressing of zesty chili-mayonnaise.
And that chicken dish? Creamy rice studded with grilled meat, tender artichokes, black olives and chorizo. Classic comfort food kicked up a notch.